The Hornbill Festival of Northeastern India celebrates the 16 major tribes of Nagaland, bringing to life the ancient tales of the Naga people through song, dance and storytelling. Elaborate headdresses adorned with Hornbill feathers are worn when performing ceremonial dances. The power and majesty of the hornbill bird are symbolised in the war dances of the Nagas.
A Konyak warrior with full facial tattoos beats a hollowed log to call his clan into the circle. As he strikes the huge log, ancient sounds reverberate across the arena. On cue, the women of his clan began to sing the song of Helena, a revered goddess who is said to have descended from heaven on a string. With poise and grace, the women moved in time, like flowers linked to heaven by a solitary thread.
I was at the 10-day long Hornbill Festival – an event held just outside the township of Kohima, the hilly capital of India’s Northeastern state of Nagaland. the first week of December each year. The festival is held the first week of December and brings together all the major Naga tribes for a celebration of unity.
Just as the dreamlike dance came to an end, I heard the sweet strains of a folksong as the Sangtam tribeswomen entered the arena. The Sangtam are from the Tuesang district of Nagaland, and it is believed that they actually migrated from Myanmar. Dressed in stark white skirts and matching headcloths, their rich orange and yellow beaded necklaces created a vivid effect as they danced to their harvest song. Like many tribal groups from Nagaland, the Sangtam practise jhum or shifting cultivation and move their crops every eight to ten years. Their folk songs celebrate their nomadic life. Songs of planting, harvesting and tribal rituals have been passed down through the ages. Songs of crop rotations and shifting seasons.
Christianity arrived in Nagaland in 1871, and the Sangtam tribe embraced the new religion, blending its teachings and practices with their own traditional beliefs. Churches can be seen dotted through the villages.
As I got comfortable in the stadium, the men from the Pochury tribe entered the arena with a lot of fanfare. I was in for a treat as the Oh Hai folk dance started to mesmerise the crowd. The men, dressed in tribal skirts, began their dance with a mass of red tassels swinging from their warrior helmets. With warrior shields in hand, the tribesmen brandished large knives while chanting in their Pochury dialect. They finished the sequence holding hands and tapping out a rhythm with fancy footwork. The Pochury are a prominent tribe from the Phek district of Nagaland, and their folk songs tell intricate and complex tales of their ancestors.
UP THE SLIPPERY POLE
Since its inception in 2000, the festival has drawn bigger and bigger crowds each year; people come not only for the dances and tribal music but also to catch the many entertaining sports events – in particular, the slippery pole competition.
It was day three when this much-awaited competition was announced over the loudspeaker, and I could feel the excitement in the air. This near-impossible feat entails scaling a 20-foot greased bamboo pole! The crowd roared with enthusiasm and good-natured laughter as one contestant made a good three-foot gain, only to lose his momentum a moment later and slide back down. Frustrated, one of the men removed his shorts and scaled the pole again. Another competitor followed suit. The crowd became absorbed in the two Nagas stripped down to their underwear. Even with more skin contact, these men could hardly make it past the halfway mark without yet another fall from grace.
I watched in amazement as one of the more serious contenders battled the slippery pole, fiercely determined to reach the top. After a gruelling 30 minutes of inch-by-inch progress, the young man conquered the pole and balanced victoriously on top, coated in sweat and grease, muscles gleaming. His reward was a generous cash prize but judging from his beaming smile, the cheers of the crowd seemed enough to satisfy him.
The Hornbill Festival is touted as the festival of all festivals, and to keep the spirit of fun and entertainment high, a great chilli-eating competition draws contesters from far and wide. Nagaland is famed for its chillies; according to locals, the hottest chilli in the world comes from Nagaland, and its potency is said to be 401.5 times greater than Tabasco sauce!
GATHERINGS IN THE MORUNGS
Each tribe has their own morung (tribal hut), which doubles as a dance rehearsal venue and meeting place during the day. At night it becomes a sleeping place. At the morungs, you can really delve into the culture of the various tribes and learn about the culture. There are 16 morungs to wander amongst, and it’s worth putting aside a couple of hours to view each one. These wonderful spaces allow visitors to interact with locals and gain insight into each of the unique Naga tribes.
After the main dance performance in the late afternoon, I wandered through the morungs and found a group of women sitting in a circle around a fire, singing songs about the harvest. In another morung, men were beating their chests, chanting words of valour and honour. The vibe was very friendly and welcoming, and before too long, you will find yourself with a bamboo cup of steaming hot tea being placed in your hands, which is a warm welcome to linger a stay a little longer.
DELIGHTING THE SENSES
The Hornbill Festival is a feast for the senses. Colour is everywhere, with spectacular dance costumes creating splashes of brilliant sunflower yellow to bright iridescent blue feathers delicately placed behind the ears of warriors. I saw tribal elders in tall, fluffy hats adorned with hornbill feathers, the revered bird of the Nagas. The festival is named in honour of the hornbill. This magnificent bird is constantly referred to in the dances, songs and tribal folklore of the Nagas.
Not only is it a feast for the eyes, but it’s a total culinary explosion too. When it comes to enlivening your taste buds, you have a choice of 16 different tribal cuisines served at each morung. I tried a famous Naga pork dish, which had a delicate, smoky flavour and was cooked with bamboo shoots and chilli. I washed this down with a local rice beer served in a bamboo flute. You can try dried squirrel soup, delicately sautéed frog and even poached silkworm larvae!
1,000 VILLAGES UNITE
Dancers, singers, musicians and elders from the 1,000 villages that line the high hills of Nagaland come together in unity and celebration. Moving amongst the hundreds of performers, some of whom were once real warriors, is a total cultural dive fest. In the past, the Nagas were headhunters and even today you will notice many of the elders wear necklaces decorated with mini brass skulls, signifying the number of heads they’ve taken. Headhunting is now banned, but the elders are happy to share a few wild stories of days of old when heads were loped off at wild abandon.
KING OF THE KONYAKS
Keen to learn more about the intriguing history of the Naga people, I took a trail high into the hills above the town of Mon to explore the village of Hong Phoi and meet King Puwang, the leader of the Konyak tribe.
Beside a blackened hearth, King Puwang sat on his haunches and welcomed me to join him. He wore bright blue beads around his legs, denoting his royal blood. Around his leathery brown neck were four brass heads. “Oh, yes!” he confirmed, “I took four heads. The last one was in 1950, but you are no longer allowed to head hunt.” King Puwang explained. He also had facial tattoos representing the various heads he had taken and intricate tattoos etched into his upper chest. “It all tells a story,” he said with a grin.
The people of King Puwang’s tribe rely on verbal storytelling to keep their legends alive. The wisdom of the elders is passed from one generation to the next through their songs, cementing their culture orally, as the Nagas have no written language.
Later, Pulei, a proud 100-year-old Konyak, welcomed us into his home. He had taken five heads, with supportive evidence around his neck. Pulei explained that after taking a head, a Konyak man would be honoured by having his face and chest tattooed. “These tattoos you see are 70 years old. I got my first one when I was 15. It was made using a thorn,” he said proudly. Pulei described how, as a young warrior, he had to prove his bravery. “It is only permitted to take male heads, and I took most of my heads over land disputes.”
Four ladies entered through a back door as we sat in Pulei’s simple wooden house. They seemed surprised to see foreigners sitting in their one-room house. Maybe the word had spread that a tall, white stranger had arrived. The Nagas are the friendliest people, happy to share their culture with you, and they are great conversationalists.
After some chatter, the women slowly turned their words into songs and performed a beautiful tribal song for us. One of the ladies explained the song, “This is a romantic song. It is a legend about a goddess who collected flowers and then was captured by a young man. However, the goddess escapes and ends up capturing the sun”. I had heard this song at the festival just the day before. I felt lucky to be able to travel the world and discover moments like this, forge a natural connection with local people and honour their culture simply by visiting them.
DAILY VILLAGE LIFE
Nagaland is a rural state; more than four-fifths of the population lives in small, isolated villages. Spending time in the villages allows for a glimpse into their lives. Life revolves around the growing cycles of rice, millet, maize and pulses, and their crops include arums, yams, potatoes and sugarcane.
The whole village gets involved in hunting, gathering, and farming. Every day on the road, I passed single-file lines of men and women with baskets strapped to their backs filled to the brim with forest fruits and some piled high with wood from the forest.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at Longwa, a village in the Naga hills outside of Mon, and I was invited to sit in a ‘talking circle’ with the village elders. It was a great honour. A fire was burning, and the men sat in a huge semi-circle. One of the elders was tending to a pan containing gunpowder. “We have had muzzle-loading guns since 1920,” the tribal elder told me. “This powder comes from a special tree and must be burnt first,” he explained. “We mix it with other compounds, and in the old days, we used it to load our bamboo cannons as well”. It is interesting that Nagas were already using gunpowder even before the British arrived in 1826. Today, most households in Longwa have at least one muzzle-loading gun, and you see many men carrying these rifles, as the Nagas are adept at hunting for food.
Life in the villages is busy. People seemed to be in constant motion, endlessly tending to duties. I soon learned their secret: betel nut! Betel nut acts as a stimulant and chewing it keeps people from being lazy.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Travelling opens your eyes to so many new things. A whole other world exists out there, waiting to be explored, and for me, Nagaland was a highlight of India. I met old warriors, hunters and tribal leaders. I rubbed shoulders with people whose homes were once inaccessible to foreigners. Sitting among elders with their full facial tattoos, I felt honoured to meet Nagas, who may very well be the last generation to sport this age-old form of traditional body art, as full facial tattoos once served as a visual reminder of the Naga warriors’ bravery and headhunting prowess.
Nagaland is a place of stunning beauty. Located on the eastern side of the Himalayas, the mountainous terrain is rugged and lined with a patchwork of Naga villages. The Nagas hold firm to their traditional values and celebrate their rich culture by coming together once a year for The Hornbill Festival.
Written by Stephanie Brookes – published in Air Asia In-flight magazine.